Fuel for Soldiers


Culinary Delights From Across the Archipelago

This is a very special month in the hearts of Indonesians, as the country’s independence day falls on August 17.

Words by Vikaria Lestari, Photography by Helen Yuanita

Recalling the greatness of Indonesian heroes during the struggle to free the country from colonial rule, I cannot help but think of the dishes the freedom fighters consumed as they lived in forests and on mountains, sometimes for months. Therefore, ingredients had to be easily obtainable, durable and satiating, not to mention nutritious. Those dishes which were familiar during the struggle surrounding the declaration of independence in 1945 still survive and still havetheir fans today.

Rice Substitutes

Rice was considered something of a luxury, as the colonial overlords decided which plants to grow for the locals. In order to substitute rice, locals turned to janeng (Dioscorea hispida dennst or Asiatic bitter yam) in Aceh, and umbi gadung in Bali and Java, to make a dish called krabe janeng. This kind of tuber, which easily grows under big trees in the forests, is actually poisonous when raw. However, it offers health benefits when prepared well.

Removing the toxins from janeng is a long process. After peeling the tuber and cutting it into long, thin shapes, janeng is washed until the water runs clear. It is then boiled in hot water for more than 30 minutes and drained. The cooked janeng is washed again and placed inside a burlap bag to soak in flowing water for around six to ten hours, to completely remove the toxins. Janeng is then steamed for the second time and is finally safe to eat. It is normally served with grated coconut and sugar. Nowadays, janeng or umbi gadung has been transformed into the popular keripik gadung, delicious savoury chips easily found in most cities of Java.

Cassava, another root-tuber, has been adapted by people in Central and East Java to make a dish called tiwul. The peeled cassava is dried under the sun and ground to flour before being steamed. Tiwul is served with grated coconut and palm sugar. Over time, tiwul has developed into a popular snack and is sold in packages for instant cooking and convenience. You can even opt for chocolate- or cheese-flavoured tiwul. Yum!

People living in Madura and some parts of Java Island are familiar with nasi jagung (corn rice). Corn kernels are roughly crushed to a rice-grain size and soaked in water for 10 to 12 hours. After that, the rough cornstarch is ground for the second time to get soft flour. Water is added, and then the ‘rice’ is steamed and served with side dishes. Nasi jagung is also now available in instant package form: all you have to do is add hot water and steam.

Durable Dishes

Another durable Acehnese delicacy is keumamah, which can keep for up to two years! During the struggle for independence, keumamah was either eaten as it came, or warmed first in hot water. Keumamah is made of fermented tongkol fish (euthynnus affinis or mackerel tuna). Rubbed with salt, the tongkol fish is steamed and placed in the sun for three to four days, resulting in a hard, stick-like texture. Keumamah can also be added into curry, dry-fried or mixed with chilli paste.

Dange, roast sago, is known by people from Luwu, South Sulawesi. In Maluku or Papua, the dish is called lempang sagu. The thin white squareshaped delicacy is normally eaten with grilled fish or fish soup, or simply dipped into hot water or tea. The dish, as satiating as rice, has a long shelf life as long as it is kept at room temperature.

A Unique Ingredient

Clay doesn’t sound much like an appetising snack, but it’s the basis for the delicacy ampo from Tuban, East Java. It is not made of any common clay, but a soft black version that contains no sand, pebbles or stones. The black clay is formed into a big square shape with the help of water and a wooden hammer.

The square clay is thinly shaved with a sharp bamboo blade to create egg-rollcracker- like shapes. Dried under the sun for 30 minutes, ampo is then grilled over firewood to look brown and smoky black. Ampo is known to be good for people with digestive problems and the common cold.

While its preparation may be modestly old-fashioned, this special Tuban snack is offered for sale on the internet. Seemingly, in this global era, almost anything you need is only a mouse-click away.

However you are celebrating the nation’s special day – whether with food, family or friends – I would like to say, “Happy Independence Day, Indonesia!”



Vikaria Lestari

Javanese by birth, is a writer and translator whose passions are travelling, food and reading. Her hobby, amongst others, is observing the unique characteristics of different cuisines and places, which she shares later in her writing. Her published works include translated novels written by bestselling American authors, as well as travel and lifestyle articles.